Cinema and Media Studies Chantal Akerman
by
Maria Walsh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0274

Introduction

Chantal Akerman (b. 1950, Brussels, Belgium–d. 2015, Paris, France) was a Belgian film director who made over forty films, including features, documentaries, and shorts, many of which were created for French television. She also made over ten video art installations and wrote two autobiographical novellas and one play. Akerman’s desire to become a filmmaker was incited by seeing Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965) when she was fifteen. Her first film, the thirteen-minute Saute ma ville (Blow Up My Town, 1968) was made shortly after leaving the Belgian film school INSAS, which she attended briefly in 1967. She also briefly attended the Université Internationale du Théâtre in Paris, leaving to pursue her own projects. After completing a second film in 1971, Akerman left Europe for New York, where she discovered the structuralist cinema of Michael Snow and the experimental autobiographical films of Jonas Mekas at the Anthology Film Archives. Both of these were lasting influences, informing her commitment to alternative ways of telling stories without using conventional narrative. She also met Babette Mangolte, who became her cinematographer for her New York films, as well as for the films she made between her two trips to the city in the early 1970s: Je tu il elle (1974) and Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). The latter film promoted her to auteur status and heralded her as a feminist director, its release coinciding with heated debates about women’s cinema and feminist film theory. In the 1980s and 1990s, Akerman drew on the clichés and tropes of genres such as romance, melodrama, comedy, and the musical, subjecting them all to her signature hyperreal, deconstructive style. While many of these films evidenced permutational narrative structures, her films are more generally associated with static camera shots and durational tracking sequences, making her foray into installation art in 1995 a logical extension of her work. Akerman’s documentaries, located in different corners of the world, extend the nomadic dimension of her cinema. From the late 1980s onward, themes of the Holocaust and Jewish diaspora became more overt in her work. Her final film, No Home Movie (2015), was an autobiographical documentary about her mother’s illness and death, the mother-daughter relationship being a predominant theme throughout her oeuvre. While Akerman is well regarded as a European/French cineaste, exhibitions of her installations and related feature films became an important form of distribution. A major touring US survey of Akerman’s installations was organized in 2009 by Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, the MIT List Visual Arts Center, MAC@MAM, and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. A major UK exhibition of her installation works was held at Ambika P3, London, in 2015 as a finale to a unique year-long screening of all of her films at the ICA, London, organized with film collective Nos Amours.

General Overviews

Prior to the publication of Margulies 1996, there was a dearth of monographs on Akerman’s work. This was somewhat remedied by the appearance of two monographs in the 2000s (Pravadelli 2000 and Schmid 2010), both of which, in different ways, cover broader aspects of Akerman’s work, in contrast to Margulies’s focus on the 1970s. Pravadelli 2000 updates scholarship on Akerman by situating her work in relation to postmodern theories and examining the thematics of Akerman’s Jewish ethnicity, while Schmid 2010 attends to her oeuvre as a whole, redressing previous focus on classics such as Jeanne Dielman. Foster 2003 also functions as an overview, with each essay operating like a synecdoche of Akerman’s oeuvre. In the 1970s, Akerman’s work was extensively discussed in journals and dossiers, especially in relation to debates on feminist filmmaking (see Creveling 1976 and Martin 1979, the latter cited under Special Journal Issues and Dossiers). There are also listings of her work in directories: Fowler 1998 situates it in relation to film history and theory, while Block 2013 gives it an autobiographical context, an emphasis that is also taken in informative journalistic pieces such as Rosenbaum 2012. Akerman illuminatingly writes about her own work in syncopated note form in the visual and textual compendium Chantal Akerman: Autoportrait en cinéaste (Akerman 2004).

  • Akerman, Chantal. Chantal Akerman: Autoportrait en cinéaste. Edited by Claudine Paquot. Paris: Editions du Centre Pompidou, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Containing a diaristic essay by Akerman, “Le frigidaire est vide. On peut le remplir,” the book is lavishly illustrated with stills from her work and archive. Scholars, colleagues, and friends each contribute one-page commentaries on one of her thirty-five films and five installations to date. Akerman’s text can be accessed by readers with basic French; however, an English translation of the text can be found in Chantal Akerman: Una autobiografía (Buenos Aires: MALBA–Colección Costantini, 2005).

  • Block, Marcelline. “Chantal Akerman.” In Directory of World Cinema: Belgium. Edited by Marcelline Block and Jeremi Szaniawski, 71–76. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2013.

    E-mail Citation »

    Extensively researched entry situating Akerman’s work in the context of being a Belgian exilic filmmaker. The entry is followed by short reviews of her key films by Block, Jonathan Robbins, Jennifer Stob, and Daniel Sterritt (pp. 77–101). Includes a fascinating interview with Akerman, “Chantal’s Kammerspielfilm,” conducted by Jean Michel Vlaeminckx (pp. 282–287), in which they discuss cinematic choreography in her work.

  • Creveling, Christina. “Women Working.” Camera Obscura 1 (1976): 136–139.

    DOI: 10.1215/02705346-1-1_1-128E-mail Citation »

    This extract on Akerman is from a selection of biographic and annotated filmographic information on five female directors: Akerman, Anne Severson, Babette Mangolte, Kathleen Laughlin, and Dore O. Creveling describes Akerman’s early films for an Anglo-American readership, who at the time would have had no other access to them. It is a historical curio and gem.

  • Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, ed. Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    An impressive collection of ten essays by renowned Akerman and feminist film scholars. Superbly edited, the book testifies to the multiplicity of Akerman’s themes and her experiments with genre over the course of her feature filmmaking in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

  • Fowler, Cathy. “Chantal Akerman.” In The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, 489–491. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although brief, this is a well-considered entry that locates Akerman’s oeuvre in relation to a range of film theories, such as Peter Wollen’s notion of the two avant-gardes, apparatus theory, auteurism, objective realism, feminist film theory, and the cinema of attractions. Also flags up gaps in the discourse on Akerman’s work. Reprinted in: World Cinema: Critical Approaches, edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 105–107.

  • Margulies, Ivone. Nothing Happens: Chantal Akerman’s Hyperrealist Everyday. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    A deeply engaged and engaging contextualization of Akerman’s oeuvre, mainly in relation to the New York art and film worlds of the 1970s, though final chapters address films from the 1980s and 1990s. The book is faithful to the complexity of Akerman’s early work as being constructed around irresolvable dichotomies of avant-garde/narrative experimentation; truth/fiction; and emotion/abstraction.

  • Pravadelli, Veronica. Performance, Rewriting, Identity: Chantal Akerman’s Postmodern Cinema. Turin, Italy: Otto, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    This monograph is overshadowed by US- and UK-based publications, a factor that is not helped by the limited availability of the book. As well as using a postmodern framework to read Akerman’s 1980s and 1990s films, the author argues that the oral dimension of Akerman’s cinema should be seen in the context of the Jewish taboo on visual representation. Reprinted in 2008.

  • Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Chantal Akerman: The Integrity of Exile and the Everyday.” LOLA 2 (2012).

    E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in Retrospektive Chantal Akerman, a publication of the Viennale/Austrian Filmmuseum, 2011, this is an informative journalistic overview of Akerman’s films that raises a number of interesting points about Akerman’s identity as an exilic but Belgian filmmaker. The article is also illuminating on the tension and oscillation between painterly stasis and narrative mobility in her work.

  • Schmid, Marion. Chantal Akerman. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Meticulously researched monograph that situates Akerman’s work in relation to avant-garde film and art cinema, and to French literature. The book is especially good on Akerman’s documentary films and pays due attention to her often overlooked work, such as the romance and slapstick fictions of the 1980s and 1990s. The author argues that the main influence on Akerman’s work was a sense of being haunted by the legacy of the Holocaust and the camps.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down